¶ Instagram’s New Colors

About 6 months after iOS 7’s release, I started to roll my eyes when an app would be updated and its icon still looked like it belonged on iOS 6. With Instagram, my eyes did a lot of rolling. For years.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday Instagram updated its iconic (har har) icon. And the reaction from the Internet was, as one would expect with such a drastic change, visceral. Some loved it, and most really did not.

My initial reaction was actually quite pleasant. It’s a daring departure for Instagram, but I like the approach. It’s fresh. Nonetheless, I thought I’d let my thoughts marinate overnight to have more than a 30-second knee-jerk reaction. And you know what?

I still like the icon. It looks at home on iOS. It’s not blue like so many other icons. It stands out on my home screen. I like it.

As a quick aside, Buzzfeed applied Instagram’s new gradient color to other company logos. Most of them look pretty good. I especially like it with Starbucks and Coca-Cola.

The icon isn’t the only change, though. The app itself has effectively been rid of color aside from the photos. While I wonder if the pendulum swung a bit too far on this, I don’t mind the change. The focus is really on the photos, and they really pop now. I imagine some hints of color in the interface will make their way back with time.

Overall, I am really digging the visual refresh in Instagram. The only way this update could have been better in my eyes is if Instagram added an iPad version.

40 Years of Apple

Today is Apple's 40th anniversary. That's right, the company got its start on April 1, 1976. It's no joke. Apple has had an amazing history.

Apple has been a part of my life for 25 years. I have so many fond memories of playing Swashbuckler and Spy's Demise on my Grandpa's Apple II, while sitting on his lap. And that Mac Classic my folks brought home in 1990. And how the first photo of my son that I shared with family and friends was taken and sent with the iPhone 3G I bought just days before.

I really enjoyed this video featuring journalist Walt Mossberg, as he recalls some great stories he's had over the years about Apple and its products.

Here's to the crazy ones.

Apple's Classic Hotrod

I have yet to use the new iPhone SE, which was released today, but everything about it sounds like a winner in my book for many folks. I always loved the design of the iPhone 5 and 5s, and the SE uses that with most of the guts of the latest and greatest iPhone 6s. So far I've recommended it to a few friends who are either considering their first smartphone or finally upgrading from an iPhone 5.

I read a couple reviews and so far my favorite has been Jim Dalrymple's.

Look at the iPhone SE like this.

Pick your favorite classic car. An old Corvette or Mustang—whatever your favorite car is. That design will always be classic, no matter what has happened in the automobile industry in the last 40 years, those 1960s designs will always be classic.

Now, take that classic car design and replace the engine, drive train, and everything else you can think of. What do you have? A hotrod. An incredible classic design with the most advanced technology that you could put in it.

That is the iPhone SE. A classic design with a lot of the newest and greatest technology.

The iPhone SE is Apple’s classic hotrod.

I've always been a latest & greatest kind of person myself, but I certainly can appreciate a timeless classic.


At today's event, Apple revealed some new products and software updates, but also spent a significant amount of time talking about their journey to run the company on 100% renewable resources.

As part of that they showed off their efforts in recycling older products with an innovative, iPhone-murdering robot named Liam.

It's like WALL•E meets Skynet.

Constraints Matter

I recently wrote about the value of brevity in regards to being respectful of a reader's or listener's attention, and also how brevity can help me write a bit more frequently as I often overthink things and go on for far too long.

So let's get to the point, shall we? Yesterday, my friend Aaron Mahnke tweeted a few things pointed at those of us using a ceiling word count for some writing. Thankfully, he elaborated a bit more in a blog post.

Writers love to count their words, and that’s a good thing. Let’s just get that onto the table right away.

Fair enough.

Writers count words to measure how far they’ve walked into a story. But here’s the catch: word count isn’t the end goal.

I agree with the first sentence, and somewhat agree with the second, depending on how it is viewed. It's not so cut and dry for me.

Some people, though, think it’s more important to prioritize brevity over clarity and art. […] They believe that the shorter the piece the better it is, that somehow using less words makes the work more admirable and praiseworthy. And they’re wrong.

I can see his side, but I think Aaron is being a bit one-sided here. Brevity can serve a purpose toward fostering clarity and art. I am wanting to embrace brevity more because I know embracing constraints can foster growth and maturity.

Let's look at it another way. I own two cameras. A Canon EOS 40D with a few lenses, and my iPhone 6. I used to take the 40D everywhere and try to take neat shots with it. But I fiddled too much with its various options and, more importantly, I didn't understand how light worked. I jumped in with the higher end of the photography spectrum (at least on a consumer level) and didn't have an understanding of the basics.

As the iPhone's camera kept getting better, I started leaving the 40D at home more. With the iPhone 5 I was leaving the 40D at home a lot. And by the iPhone 6 it even stopped coming along for trips. Why? Because as the iPhone's camera got better, I started using it more, despite the fact it has a ton of constraints.

Having those limitations forced me to think a bit more creatively, a bit more out of the box. I had to really start thinking about how light worked because I couldn't just adjust the aperture or shutter speed or ISO. I take better pictures because constraints left me no choice but to become observant and learn.

And let me tell you, I have had it said to me by plenty of photographers who really know their craft that "a phone camera is just a toy camera" and "that phone camera can't be used to take a good picture." But we all know that's a bunch of bulldonkey.

I mean, look at the beautiful things an iPhone can photograph.

When you write under the pretense that shorter is better, you trade art and care for economy and mathematics.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. Shorter can be better, if you use it to hone the skill of art and care. Brevity does not inherently strive for economy and mathematics.

A writer should write the words necessary to tell their story — no more and no less — and then edit and craft them to fully represent the material.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. When I set out to write something with the intentional constraint of brevity, I keep an eye on the word count. I have a target I want to hit. I want to keep that particular writing in the ballpark of something brief. But if the topic requires more, I'm prepared to eschew brevity to complete the thought (as I've clearly done here).

Counting words has nothing to do with that whatsoever.

Word count isn’t a quality of good writing.

Again, this is not cut and dry, black and white, or mutually exclusive. Word count can and does influence writing, both poor writing and excellent writing. Working within constraints forces and fosters creativity.

Constraints matter.

¶ Ulysses 2.5

When I get the urge to write something I either reach for the closest instrument I can or, if available, the one that provides the most comfort. My iPhone is almost always with me and I'll write there if I must, though I much prefer my iPad when lounging in a recliner or my Mac if at a table or desk. Maybe I'm a bit overly particular, but I prefer my writing environment of choice to be as similar as possible across my three devices. This is one reason I love Day One for journaling and why I loved Byword for most anything else.

Yes, I said loved. Past tense.

There are a number of reasons why my beloved Byword fell out of favor with me. The frustrations were mainly with iOS. It started to feel buggy, and sync often bogged down the app, or ended with conflicted copies of files. In short, it became unreliable.

Now, I don't mean to disparage Byword. It will always hold a special place for me. But sentiment isn't something that should keep a tool around of it is no longer working well. It is ultimately only a tool.

Enter Ulysses. I bought Ulysses for Mac some time ago and experimented with it a bit, but I never committed as the story on iOS was only for iPad, and I often start my ideas on iPhone. It felt like an incomplete tool for my writing process.

Of course, hints and rumors have circulated for a while that The Soulmen, the makers of Ulysses, were working on an iPhone version. When they announced a beta, I quickly signed up, and, thankfully, was quickly accepted.

To put it briefly, Ulysses has captured my heart and the words pouring from it.

The Experience

The best apps are the ones that offer an experience. They have a story to tell when you use them, and that story is expressed consistently on each device. Ulysses is such an app. It aims to encourage writing. It has all the tools one could want whether you are jotting a note or penning the next great novel.

Ulysses is powerful when it comes to organizing your writing. First up is the Library, where you create groups, sub-groups, add icons to groups for context, and more. The Library is as sparse or detailed as you want it to be. I use several overarching groups to separate writing for this site, work, and a few other things. Under each of those I typically have some sub-groups for additional context, such as Drafts and Published in my group for Full City Press.

Once you delve into a group you have the Sheet List. Think of Sheets as separate documents. Like a sheet of paper, it is a blank canvas. It doesn't need to have a title or a file name. It just needs words.

Once you create or select a sheet you're in the Editor. This is where the magic happens, and the true joy of writing with Ulysses is found. The Editor is clean, putting your words first. But it also places every tool you'd want within reach, kind of like Batman's utility belt. You can add keywords, set a writing goal, add a note, or even an image via the attachments sidebar. I make use of the writing goals to ensure I don't go overboard on words, and I love using notes to drop links I want to reference without mucking up my main text. I could see a novelist keeping notes about a scene or characters there, as well.

The best part is Ulysses is familiar whether you use it on a Mac, an iPad, an iPhone, or any combination of the three. Every tool you use on one device is found on another, in a sensible place for the size of screen being used.

Write. Anything. Anywhere.

I love the Ulysses’ slogan of Write. Anything. Anywhere. For the 2.5 release The Soulmen focused on the anywhere aspect of it. Bringing Ulysses to the iPhone is easily the capstone feature of this release. As I mentioned earlier, most of my writing starts on my iPhone while I am out and about. An idea hits me and I quickly jot it down, usually with a working title and attaching some notes to capture my general stream of thought. If the occasion permits, I may even tap out the first paragraph or two right there on my iPhone.

Ulysses, by default, leverages Markdown for styling text, which I have long held is the markup language every writer should learn and use. The various symbols you use for Markdown are easily accessible on a hardware keyboard, but can be a bit of a chore when using the on-screen keyboard on iOS. Ulysses again keeps the tools you need close by with the Shortcut Buttons that reside with the iOS keyboard.

Shortcuts are separated into three categories:

  1. Blocks: Headings, Lists, Quotes, Comments, and the like.
  2. Inline styling: Strong emphasis, regular emphasis, links, and more.
  3. Special characters: All the special characters you could shake a stick at.

Ulysses keeps all of these a single tap away while writing, instead of having to toggle the keyboard to symbols and maybe tap and hold on a key to reveal further options, as one would normally need to do things. These are located right in the QuickType Bar on the standard iPad keyboard, and are elegantly placed just above the keyboard on iPhone.

It is astounding how much attention to detail there is to keeping you focused on writing and not worrying about where things are at. Ulysses simply steps out of your way when writing while keeping any tools you may need within reach. To make another superhero reference, Ulysses is the Jarvis to your Tony Stark.

Keeping It All Together

Ulysses can be the one-stop shop for all your writing if you want it to be. It keeps everything organized. And when you use it on more than one device it also keeps everything in sync. Ulysses does this all through iCloud, and requires zero setup. It really just works.

Now, iCloud sometimes gets dirty looks when it comes to sync. Those aren't unwarranted as iCloud has definitely had quirks in the past. That said, I can't say I have had any trouble with iCloud sync in Ulysses. It has indicators in the Sheet List to show whether a particular sheet is uploading or downloading, and everything has always come across on all my devices. I don't even think about it. Ulysses has proven trustworthy that when I close it on one device, my work is there when I open it on another device.

Get to Writing

You don't need a fancy text editor to write. You can use paper, you can use TextEdit, Pages, or any number of tools. Ulysses is not needed for you to write or to write well. I don't think The Soulmen would disagree with that.

That said, when you set out to accomplish something, the caliber of the tool you use matters. There's a tremendous difference between using a generic tool and a precision instrument. Ulysses is the latter. It is designed to make a difference in your writing by taking care of all the things that typically steal away your attention while trying to focus on your writing. While it cannot create focus for you — that part is up to you — it does not create distraction.

Ulysses is the tool I whole-heartedly recommend to serious writers. Whether you write poetry, short stories, reviews, quips, thought pieces, or novels, Ulysses can handle it.

Write. Anything. Anywhere.

Ulysses is available on the iOS App Store as a Universal app for iPad and iPhone for $19.99. The Soulmen told me that price will be going up soon, so now is a great time to buy it. The Mac version of Ulysses is available on the Mac App Store for $44.99.

These apps are worth every penny, and I applaud The Soulmen for pricing them to be sustainable so Ulysses can continue to be the best writing tool for ages to come.

¶ Brevity

Clear! Concise! Cogent!

Those were the words that graced most of my research papers from a particular professor in college. Like most professors, he had a minimum page requirement for papers, but unlike most professors he also had a ceiling limit. The idea was if you couldn't make your point in that many pages, you simply couldn't make your point.

Brevity is an important lesson to learn, but is also easily forgotten when typing away in a limitless text editor. Dancing endlessly around the point of a topic has become an epidemic on the internet today. I don't know about you, but my time is valuable. I imagine yours is, as well.

I've come to appreciate writers and podcasters who work within constraints which value the time of their audience. It's about respecting your readers' attention.

Ben Brooks proposes product reviews should have a ceiling of 1500 words:

…I don’t have time to read about a new app for 30 minutes when I could try it for myself in 5 minutes. It makes no sense to read these beastly posts when I could do the work the reviewer was supposed to do — but in less time than I would spend reading the review.

I'm a huge fan of that idea.

Other things I've come to value are podcasts that I can start and finish during a short walk. Two of my favorites are Lore and Under the Radar. Lore is typically under 30 minutes and Under the Radar is always under that.

M.G. Siegler's 500ish Words hits a sweet spot for easy reading for me. Similarly, a new favorite is Matt Gemmell's new "Briefly" format. I love the direction he is taking with it:

My guidelines for Briefly pieces are that they should be 100-200 words, and should take most people less than a minute to read.


It’s my hope that the new format will allow me to write here more frequently.

I've been struggling to write. I get hung up on length versus getting to the point. I asked Matt if I could steal the Briefly idea he concisely said, "Do it."

I've already gone doubly the length of a Briefly's goals, but am firmly within 500(ish) words. Even at that, this should have taken most of you less than two minutes to read. Thanks for your moments, and I hope you enjoy reading more frequent thoughts from me.

The Need for Encryption

Tim Cook wrote a letter to Apple’s customers (and in my opinion, the entire world) regarding the United States government ordering Apple to weaken the encryption of iOS devices by adding a backdoor. And Apple is fighting it.

Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.

In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.

We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.

Please go read Tim Cook’s entire letter.

Make no mistake, this is a pivotal moment in our security and privacy in the digital age. It’s my opinion that Apple is fighting for citizens’ rights here, protecting us from the United States government. And if such a backdoor to encryption is forced upon us, criminals will find and use it to exploit each and every one of us.

And this is certainly about more than this single iPhone. Marco Arment has said it best in what I’ve read today:

As we’ve learned from national hero Edward Snowden and, well, almost every other high-profile action taken by law enforcement recently, this most likely has very little to do with the specific crime or iPhone that the FBI is citing in this case.

It’s their excuse to establish precedent and permanent backdoors for themselves so they can illegally spy on anyone’s data whenever they please. They’re shamelessly using a horrible tragedy to get themselves more power.

I believe in encryption. In this day and age, encryption is what gives us privacy in the digital world. In a previous age, privacy was as simple as closing your door and locking it. Yes, law enforcement can always obtain a warrant and circumvent your locks by breaking your door. But nowhere is it written that your locks must be weak enough to be broken. If your door is 12 inches of steel, well, that’s your privilege.

And for those of you who think Apple should stand aside and help the FBI by weakening encryption because you think you have nothing to hide, go and read Tim Cook’s letter again, but substitute Chinese government and Russian goverment wherever Tim writes U.S. government.

Do you still think encryption is worth weakening? If Apple is forced to capitulate to the FBI, other governments will come knocking on the encryption door, too.

Watch apps worth making

"Underscore" David Smith, developer of apps such as Pedometer++ and Sleep++, has been thinking about which kinds of apps make sense on the Apple Watch as it is today. He considers three major types:

  • Complications
  • Notifications
  • Sensors

I agree those three types make sense for apps on the Apple Watch as it is today. While I use Complications frequently, I haven't found myself using any from third-parties yet. So far I prefer the standard Weather, Timer, and Activity Complications.

However, Notifications and Sensors are both huge for me and why I love my Apple Watch so much.

Deliveries notifies me when that thing I ordered has reached my doorstep.

MacID let's me lock and unlock my Mac over Bluetooth with ease.

David's own Pedometer++ has been vital for improving my personal health since it ties into the Watch's accelerometer to help me see a better picture of my daily activity.

All of my favorite Apple Watch apps use either Notifications or Sensors, or some combination of both, in an extremely practical way.

Other apps are on the Watch just to be on the Watch, without having a sensible purpose. These are what causes the Watch to be perceived as having unclear purpose.

¶ Twenty-Sixteen: Intention and Action

Intentions make far more sense to me than resolutions. Declaring your intent sounds and feels more tangible than resolving to do something. That said, either one of those without action is simply ephemeral.

Action is the catalyst that drives us forward with our intentions.

Last year I made the distinction between intention and resolution and focused on intent. I sure intended to do quite a number of things. But I lacked action. I sat there, stalled, on far too many of my goals.

One thing did stick for me. I decided to move more. Since about March last year, I've gone for a walk every day. I've lost weight, increased my stamina, and I haven't been egregiously sick, either. I think reducing how often I am sedentary has been a big part of that. My goal for this year is to get that push in to get my weight under 300 pounds. I have less than 4 pounds to go. I think I can do it.

My long-term goals for 2016 are to reduce things that mean little to me. While I love tracking my fitness activity, I've been catering to too many apps for logging it. I used to wear a Fitbit until I lost it about a year ago. I had switched the Fitbit app to use the motion sensor in my iPhone. I also started using the excellent Pedometer++. And Apple's Health app. And the Apple Watch with its Activity rings. It's too much. Something needs to go.

So last night, after the clock rolled over to midnight and I gave my wife a kiss, I launched the Fitbit app, synced it one last time, and promptly deleted it. I still love Pedometer++ for its simplicity. It only tracks steps. And the Apple Watch's Activity rings have tangible value to my daily fitness, too. They keep me honest and motivated. But Fitbit's chapter in my fitness is over. One less thing to check every day.

An upcoming intention I plan to act on this weekend is to trim down some of the people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. I've carelessly allowed some folks who ended up being toxic to have a foothold in my attention span. Part of me has been feeling guilty about the idea of doing this, but toxicity has no place in my life, and I'd rather surround myself with people who inspire me to be a better person.

There are so many other areas where reduction is needed and I'm working to identify those and figure out the plan of action to deal with them.

Where 2015 was the year of good intentions that remained still, 2016 is a year of intentional action.